Cooking in the Tropics: Turmeric
Turmeric is the wonder spice of the moment, a tonic for pretty much anything that ails you. Turmeric is botanically known as Curcuma longa, derived from the old Arabic name for saffron (“kurkum”). Although the color it imparts to food is similar to saffron, the plant is actually a member of the ginger family and unrelated to saffron. Turmeric is native to tropical India and needs a considerable amount of annual rainfall to thrive. Like ginger, it is the root of the turmeric plant that is used as a spice. The roots can be grated, and add a distinctive color to every dish. When not used fresh, the rhizomes are boiled for about 30–45 minutes and then dried in hot ovens, after which they are ground into a deep orange-yellow powder. Turmeric has a distinctly earthy, slightly bitter, slightly hot peppery flavor, and a mustardy smell.
Turmeric is native to Tamil Nadu, a large state at the southeastern tip of India. Turmeric was first used as a dye (here’s my first tip for turmeric – wear gloves or you will be walking around with orange nails and fingertips for a day or two!), but has been incorporated into Siddha medicine for thousands of years. Siddha originated in Tamil Nadu and is one of the oldest medical systems in the world. Turmeric is an important part of the Siddha pharmacopeia, renowned for its antimicrobial properties and used as a remedy for stomach and liver ailments, as well as topically to heal sores. A fresh juice is commonly used in many skin conditions, including eczema, chicken pox, shingles, allergy, and scabies. Manjal Pal (turmeric milk) is warm milk mixed with some turmeric powder used to reduce fevers. Turmeric paste is often used as an antiseptic in open wounds, while chun-holud (turmeric with calcium hydroxide) is used to stop bleeding.
The active compound in turmeric is curcumin, and it is believed to have a wide range of biological effects including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antitumor, antibacterial, and antiviral activities, which indicate potential in clinical medicine. Trials are ongoing at several major American universities to determine whether turmeric can be used to treat several types of cancer, kidney and cardiovascular diseases, arthritis and irritable bowel disease. In the meantime, many holistic practitioners suggest that we should all add certified organic (non-irradiated) turmeric to our daily diet.
Turmeric has been used to cure skin ailments for centuries. It is an inexpensive and natural way of treating several skin problems including acne, oily and dry skin and preventing wrinkles. And it also seems to whiten teeth! It might seem counterintuitive to rub a yellow dye on your teeth in order to prevent the yellowing of your teeth – but not only will turmeric brighten your smile, there is also some research the shows it may even improve oral health issues like gingivitis and oral cancer. According to those who have used turmeric as a tooth whitener, the effects are not immediate – you will see gradual results with every use.
Here are 3 different ways you can use turmeric to whiten your teeth:
1. Mix 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric with water to form a paste. Then use a toothbrush (which will be permanently stained yellow) to pick up some of the paste and brush teeth as you would with toothpaste. Alternatively, you may spread the paste over teeth with your finger and leave for 1-2 minutes. Rinse out as you would after brushing.
2. Sprinkle some turmeric into your regular toothpaste and brush as normal.
3. Mix 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric with water and use as a mouthwash.
“Raw is best”
Natalie Kling, a Los Angeles-based nutritionist, says she first learned about the benefits of turmeric while getting her degree from the Natural Healing Institute of Neuropathy. “As an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antiseptic, it’s a very powerful plant,” she says.
Kling recommends it to clients for joint pain and says that when taken as a supplement, it helps quickly. She advises adding turmeric to food whenever possible and offers these easy tips. “Raw is best,” she said. “Sprinkling it on vegetables or mixing it into dressings is quick and effective.”
If you do cook it, make sure to use a small amount of healthy fat like healthy coconut oil to maximize flavor. Kling also recommends rubbing turmeric on meat and putting it into curries and soups.
“It’s inexpensive, mild in taste, and benefits every system in the body,” Kling says. “Adding this powerful plant to your diet is one of the best things you can do for long-term health.”
Here are a few recipes for ground turmeric and turmeric root which can help you add turmeric to your daily diet.
Total Time: 15 minutes Serves: 4-6
5½ cups water
2 teaspoons dried cardamom pods, crushed with a mortar and pestle
2 tablespoons ground turmeric
6 tablespoons honey
½ cup lemon juice
1. In a small pot over medium heat, simmer 1½ cup lemon juice cups water with cardamom and turmeric until reduced by half, about 8 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into a pitcher.
2. Mix in honey, stirring to dissolve. Stir in remaining water and lemon juice. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
—Adapted from Caroline Fidanza of Little Chef, New York
- Beat eggs with a dash of milk. Add salt and grated turmeric to taste.
- Saute onions and mushrooms in olive oil until they turn light golden brown.
- Pour egg mixture over the vegetables and either scramble, make an omelet or steam the eggs.
- Garnish the eggs with chopped cilantro and ground pepper to taste.
- Serve eggs with warm pita bread, feta cheese, sliced tomatoes, walnuts and fresh mint.
Garbanzo and Turmeric Curry
1 onion, finely diced
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, grated
1 tbsp grated ginger
2 small turmeric roots, peeled and grated
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
Pinch of cayenne
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 cups chopped tomatoes
1 cup of cooked garbanzos, drained
2 cups vegetable stock or water
1 cup of washed spinach
1. Heat oil in a large heavy bottom pan over medium heat, and add onion, garlic, ginger and fresh turmeric. Saute for five minutes without browning.
2. Add cinnamon, cumin, coriander, cayenne, ground turmeric, tomatoes, chickpeas, stock, sea salt and pepper to the frying pan and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.
3. Taste for spicing and seasoning then add the spinach, folding it through gently as it wilts, and serve with a drizzle of yogurt and a bowl of steamed rice.
Thai Yellow Curry
(from the Asia Society web page. I add this spice to coconut milk and then freeze it to use throughout the month.)
8 cm/3 in fresh turmeric root
1 large red onion or 5 shallots, finely chopped
3 tablespoons chopped galangal or ginger
3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander roots, well washed
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons sliced lemon grass (or lime zest)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh yellow or red chilies or 12 dried red chilies,
soaked in hot water for 10 minutes (I use fresh aji chilis)
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon ground coriander
3 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 teaspoons dried shrimp paste (or dried shrimps or fish sauce)
2 teaspoons salt
125 ml/4 fl oz/1/2 cup peanut oil
Scrape any tough skin off the turmeric root and chop it roughly. There should be about 4 tablespoons. Put into blender container with onion, galangal, coriander roots (well washed), garlic and lemongrass.
Adjust the number of chilies according to how hot they are and the desired result. Using gloves, discard seeds and central membrane for less heat and roughly chop the chilies.
Add chilies, and if dried chilies are used, some of the water in which they soaked. Add lime juice and blend to a puree. Add coriander, cumin, peppercorns, shrimp paste and salt to the blended mixture.
Heat oil in a wok and on low heat fry the paste, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes or until fragrant. Allow to cool. Bottle and store in the refrigerator for one week or freeze for a longer time.
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.